VANCOUVER – There hasn’t been an elephant in the Vancouver Canucks’ room on the opening day of training camp since Vladimir Krutov lumbered through the Iron Curtain from Russia three decades ago, huge and hungry for more hot dogs. Thank goodness Igor Larionov came with him.
The elephant in the Canucks’ room on Thursday wasn’t actually in the room. Brock Boeser was somewhere in Grand Forks, N.D., training with his old college team while awaiting a new contract from the Canucks.
By elephant, we refer proverbially to Boeser, whose absence on media day ahead of the Canucks’ training camp in Victoria this weekend overshadowed everyone who was there at Rogers Arena.
The first question to general manager Jim Benning during his press conference with coach Travis Green was about Boeser. So was the second one. Same thing for the first question to Green. Then back to Benning.
Understandably, Boeser is a huge story. The 22-year-old has scored 59 goals in his first 140 National Hockey League games over two-plus seasons and now wants to get paid.
Summer negotiations on a long-term deal never came close to fruition, not because the Canucks have only $4.16-million of salary-cap space available but because Benning wasn’t willing to meet agent Ben Hankinson’s price.
CapFriendly.com lists 14 forwards under contract for the Canucks, and this includes neither Boeser nor last season’s minor-league call up, Adam Gaudette.
There are a lot of extra bodies, and some are going to be sent to the American Hockey League at the end of the month regardless of what happens with Boeser. So Benning can easily create a $7-million-US space for Boeser if he needs to, and the GM reiterated after Thursday’s press conference that he has budgeted for various scenarios and can still accommodate a long-term contract for his first-line winger if there’s a breakthrough in negotiations.
But the sides have been focussing instead on a bridge deal, which should be simpler as well as less expensive on an annual basis. There seems to be little traction there, either. Benning and Hankinson have kept details of their negotiations out of the media, but it’s logical to think the Canucks probably aren’t willing to pay more annually for Boeser on a short-term deal than they’re paying long-term to future captain Bo Horvat.
Horvat, second to Elias Pettersson in scoring last season and probably the second-best player on the Canucks, signed a six-year, $33-million contract one week before training camp two seasons ago.
"It is hard," Horvat recalled Wednesday when asked about Boeser’s contractual situation. "It is stressful because you want to get a deal done. You want to get back to your teammates, and you want to be there for camp and get going before the season starts.”
By all accounts, including from Horvat, who has spoken to Boeser, the winger badly wants to get back to the Canucks and his teammates. Pettersson has been texting Boeser almost daily.
Pettersson, by the way, is going to need a new contract two years from now, and his annual salary could be eight figures. Rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes will also be starting his second contract in 2021. At that point, Horvat will have two years left on his deal.
Will Boeser be no more than the fourth-best player on the Canucks? He’s 22; it’s impossible to know his ceiling or how many goals he might score if he gets fully fit and continues to play with Pettersson. But you can see why, with such big tickets looming, Benning needs to be careful now.
"Nobody wants Brock here more than I do," Benning told reporters. "We’re going to continue to talk to his agent — and I’ll talk to him again today at some point — and we’re try to figure out if something makes sense from his side and our side."
Benning said later: "I think every team has their own internal cap structure that they try to figure out and plan for and try to follow, and we’re no different. We have some real good young players coming up here in the next couple of years, and we talk about it a lot."
An extended absence by Boeser will harm both player and team. After suffering major back and wrist injuries at the end of his rookie season, the 2015 first-round pick was unable to properly train last summer and was clearly behind other Canucks when he reported for training camp.
The bulkier Boeser went goal-less in five exhibition games, then had just two goals in his first 12 games of the regular season. Twice he left the lineup due to a groin injury.
He needs to be with the Canucks, skating and training, to get ready for the season. And the Canucks, ambitiously eyeing a playoff spot after a series of significant summer acquisitions, need to start well, build momentum and prove they are a different team than the one that missed the playoffs the last four years.
The Canucks are better than they were, but not so good and deep with talent that they can play without their best finisher.
"We want (Brock) here but he’s not here, so camp goes on," Green said. "We’ll adjust. We’ll change the lines. That’s just part of it."
New winger J.T. Miller, acquired to play with Horvat, is expected to replace Boeser on Pettersson’s line for Friday’s first practice on Vancouver Island. The Canucks open the pre-season with split-squad games Monday against the Calgary Flames.
"I want him here; I can’t lie about that," Pettersson said when asked about his absent linemate and friend. "Like, I can play hockey without him, even though I like to play with him. Of course it would be a lot easier if he was here, but he isn’t. All we can hope is he’s here as quick as possible. Otherwise I’ll play with some other good players on our team."